Kenneth Grange’s gold-standard designs

Kenneth Grange has just been awarded a gold medal for a lifetime achievement in design. Looking at his work over the past 40 years, it’s easy to see why, as Michael Evamy finds out

The Intercity 125, designed by Sir Kenneth Grange and introduced in 1976
The Intercity 125, designed by Sir Kenneth Grange and introduced in 1976

Kenneth Grange has just been awarded the Chartered Society of Designers’ gold medal for “a lifetime of achievement in design”. This does not signal any decline in his health or workload. Grange is as young and hard-working a 60-something as they come. But such has been his impact on the fortunes of his clients since he started business that the award could have been made in 1976 rather than 1996.

His products are no strangers to British households. People who have never heard of Kenneth Grange or Pentagram (the consultancy he founded) know about the Kenwood Chef, the InterCity 125 and the Kodak Instamatic. What usually comes as a surprise is that all these things were designed by the same person.

Grange’s creations have stayed on the market for years and, in some cases, for decades. He takes pride in the durability of his designs in the face of modern marketing pressures and in the long-lasting relationships he has enjoyed with clients like Kenwood, Kodak, B&W Loudspeakers and Wilkinson Sword. His own durability is also to be wondered at. Grange is a designer who has been consistently resourceful, inventive and conscious of his responsibilities; whether in the optimistic but frugal Fifties or the nervous Nineties.

Grange’s career in design began in the army. It should have started at Willesden College of Art. The young Grange did learn to draw there, but even in 1946 Willesden was a far from ideal stimulus to the creative glands of young people. He needed to be stretched, and National Service happened to serve the purpose. It was in the Royal Engineers that the designer took shape as a technical illustrator, taking guns apart and doing drawings of the dismantled weapons for use in handbooks. The labour rewarded Grange’s curiosity into how things are made. He also learnt how to get around the system and made string braces for himself so that he could keep his standard issue pair spotless in his locker. The “terrible bollocking” he earned for that little stroke of energy conservation could do nothing to deter his resourcefulness.

Consequently, Grange was prepared to absorb a great deal from his employers and, when he set up his own business in 1958, he also learnt from his clients. Industrial design in the late Fifties – on this side of the Atlantic at least – had nothing to do with rebellion or fashion or change for change’s sake.

Royal Mail pillar box, 1996, by Sir Kenneth Grange
Royal Mail pillar box, 1996, by Sir Kenneth Grange

The development of a new product was not undertaken lightly. “It’s difficult to appreciate now what an unploughed field it was,” says Grange. “When I redesigned an iron for Morphy Richards in 1950-something, it was the first time it had been redesigned for 25 or 30 years. There were many things I got to do for clients, for the first time in a long time. The undertaking was very important to them and they trusted me.”

The responsibilities were huge. Entire factories would be built based on decisions about the design and manufacture of new products. “The consequence is that some of those things are still in production. The Kenwood Chef is virtually unchanged, for example. The attitude today would be ‘we’ll plastic mould it, make the walls as thin as we can, process the whole financing of it based on a lifetime of three or four years, and it will be an embarrassment if it goes on longer’. And sometimes it is.”

Grange’s designs stand outside any transient “look”. When he has toyed with fashion it has not ended happily. His most abject design failure, he claims, was his “Postmodern” toaster for Kenwood, complete with fluted corner details. It sold zilch. He is closely linked with the import of Braun’s rational design ethic applied to British consumer appliances in the Sixties, but it was function that influenced him, not style.

The Wilkinson Sword razor, 1991, by Sir Kenneth Grange
The Wilkinson Sword razor, 1991, by Sir Kenneth Grange

The timelessness of Grange’s most memorable products means they are produced for far longer than run-of-the-mill rivals. The moulding tools for some Kenwood mixers have been sold on from country to country, each one marketing the products afresh. “Each place thinks the product is new. Take the Kodak Instamatic: I went to Mexico four years ago and the bloody things were in the shops as brand new products. I know the moulding tools are 25 years old, but I’m all for handing round the common culture.”

But product designers, regardless of how long their creations are manufactured, promote production and, ipso facto, the consumption of resources. After 40 years as a designer of huge-selling consumer products including disposable packaging, razors and pens, Grange is susceptible to pangs of guilt about the sheer volume of material he has helped shift. “When I see a junkshop selling one of my hairdryers or cameras, I can’t resist buying the thing. I feel an obligation to stop it going to waste. That’s a reflection of the way you own the thing forever. You do get upset by the waste factor. And that’s why I’m happy when I know a thing is still rolling along.” Better that, says Grange, than the pathological impulse typified by Japanese manufacturers to replace perfectly sound, successful products after just two years for the sake of novelty.

Paradoxically, there are products Grange has designed that he would like to see replaced. The privatisation of British Rail has heralded a drought of investment in rolling stock that is likely to continue for several years at least, which means that the Inter-City 125 is guaranteed to still be running in the 21st century. “That’s wrong, because it means that there are a lot of other things not being renewed that ought to be.”

The TX1 London Taxi, 1996, by Sir Kenneth Grange
The TX1 London Taxi, 1996, by Sir Kenneth Grange

Grange is saddened by the sell-off of BR and, indeed, of all the utilities that preceded it (despite Pentagram having gladly carried out the corporate repackaging of the privatised National Grid). “I do think that the mania for privatisation is really out of hand. But how you rectify the errors of public ownership is harder to answer.”

It’s a different world from the one where the first Wilson government insisted that the Design Council vet every piece of street furniture for London, including Grange’s design for the UK’s first ever parking meter. “Wasn’t that sophisticated?” says the designer. This makes him sound like an old-school, the-state-knows-best type, but it’s hard to disagree with him when you contemplate the junk on the streets, or compare the modern bus shelters designed by Pentagram with the schlock-Georgian obscenities designed as bus stops in London’s Regent Street.

Yes, Grange wears a bow tie and remembers the past fondly. But anyone who needs evidence that he is living in the present should take a look at his list of clients in Japan, the continuing success of his part of Pentagram’s business and his persistent, almost boyish enthusiasm for how the latest gadgets and machines work. Most of all, they should judge him by what he has designed, which is an awful lot of very high quality, very relevant products that last for years. They are wearing well, and so is he.

Ken Grange – the route to success

1929 Born 17 July London

1944-47 Educated at Willesden College of Art

1947-48 Technical illustrator, The Royal Engineers

1952 Joins Jack Howe & Partners as a designer, working on products to accompany architectural projects and exhibitions

1958 Goes independent, having won a major contract to design an exhibition for the Atomic Energy Authority in Geneva. Sets up Kenneth Grange Design

1960 After working with Jack Howe on the Kodak pavilion at the World Fair, and having been overheard criticising the company’s products by Kodak’s director of development, Grange is invited to design a camera. It becomes the first model to make a profit for the company, which until then was only in the business of selling film. The association lasts 20 years and produces a string of products including the Instamatic

1961 Redesigns the Chef, his first product for Kenwood. Over 130 products and 35 years later, Grange still works with the company.

1963 Wins the Duke of Edinburgh’s Prize for Elegant Design

1969 Becomes a Royal Designer for Industry

1970 Association begins with Wilkinson Sword, yielding 11 mass-produced razors, plus knives and garden tools

1971 Having won several Design Council Awards, he becomes industrial design advisor to the council (later a council member)

1972 Founds Pentagram, with graphic designers Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes and Mervyn Kurlansky and architect Theo Crosby. Early successes under Pentagram include the Parker 25 pen and the InterCity 125 high-speed train

1977 Association begins with B&W Loudspeakers

1982 Appointed consultant design director to Thorn EMI (still holds the position)

1984 Awarded CBE

1987-88 President of the Chartered Society of Designers

1993-95 Chairman of the Design Business Association

1996 Head of the Products Panel for the third BBC Design Awards

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